For free-thinking farmers, a Mecca
Swoope, Virginia is not on the way anywhere. Was it lunacy to tack three hours’ driving and an extra day onto our already rather irresponsible road trip to an ultimate Frisbee tournament south of the Mason-Dixon, when both Husband Joe and I had work deadlines looming? But of course.
I had to pull out all the stops: not-so-gentle reminders that it was my birthday, tears. I wanted to see Polyface Farms.
I booked us a hotel at the last outpost of civilization before entering the Shenandoah Valley. I did my best to smooth the rough edges by picking as a Sunday dinner spot a brewpub that served Polyface pork. The bratwurst-in-a-pretzel was better than I knew bar food could be. Even Joe, who usually doesn’t eat pork or beef, partook and looked pleased.
But when we woke up Monday to a cold rain and unbroken gray skies – and wrapped the baby in a t-shirt, because we’d run out of diapers and erroneously figured we’d find someplace to get some – it did seem that this might not be the best time to chitchat. So it was mostly in silence that we drove into the breathtaking red dirt valley, past cows munching grass in the rain, the wet accentuating their cowlicks; past a huge black Ferdinand-looking bull separated from our little orange Honda Fit by what looked like three rubber bands of electric fencing.
Why, of the thousands of farms we’d passed, were we intent on making a pilgrimage to this one?
We had an open invitation, for one. Everyone does. On any day but Sunday, anyone is welcome to come any time and walk around, watch the chores get done, peer into crannies. What confidence such openness requires. It’s like telling strangers to come on over, whether or not you’re home, and feel free to peek under the bed and in the toilet bowl.
How refreshing, at a time when seeing our food system in action, on anything approaching a large scale, usually requires trespassing or watching a documentary.
If we happened to see the farmer, Joel Salatin, here today, I thought I might tell him that he should run for president. He wouldn’t want to, but neither did the reluctant Roman farmer Cincinnatus want to put down his plow to lead his people. It’s probably for the best that we didn’t see him.
The first thing we did see was one of the hoophouses we’d read about, full of chickens and rabbits. The plastic-covered frame was open to the elements at either end, but dry and cozy inside, thanks to the deep bedding of fine wood chips on the floor, soaking up manure.
The farm was still coming out of winter mode; it would be a couple days until the chickens would be moved into Salatin’s signature “chicken mobile.” Still, the hoophouse was also a classic Salatin system, light on infrastructure, heavy on creativity. In this case, rabbits lived in cages on a shelf. Their dung fell onto the floor, where the chickens ate it.
We walked around the side of the hoophouse, peering in, when we noticed something. What did that chicken have in its beak? A rabbit pelt, ears still attached. Yikes. It was possible that the rabbit was intentionally fed to the chickens, as a protein source. (Chickens are omnivores, just like us.) It was also possible that a rabbit had escaped its cage and this was the result. I hoped it was the former, for the rabbit’s sake. This is why, I realized, most farmers don’t want visitors. Farming is not always picturesque. But it is always educational.
We moved along. We wanted to see the cows.
There was one other couple poking around. We asked if they knew where the cows were, and we ended up walking up the long dirt road together.
Scarlet and John Sweeney were from Wisconsin, where she worked in conventional agriculture doing something with potatoes, and he had just retired from a government job and taken a pension. They were expanding their small farm, where they raised pastured beef and slaughtered 10 head a year that they sold directly to friends, plus blueberries and honey. This was in a town with 1,000 eligible voters, worlds from either coast or a city, and yet they were confident they’d sell out if they were to raise three times as many cattle. The local food movement, they were pleased to report, had made it to the heart of the Corn Belt.
John pointed out a horned cow standing over her newborn, which already had a tag in its ear. That must have taken some doing, he chuckled, to get that baby away from that mama without getting gored. Scarlet squinted into the distance at a cow a ways away from the others, that might be calving.
“What brought you here?” I asked.
“Vacation,” said Scarlet. Then she confessed. “Well, really, I wanted to see the farm. I told him I’d behave myself on the rest of the trip,” so long as they got here.
I nodded. Wisconsin was a long way to come. We were among kindred, lunatic spirits.
Becca Tucker is a former Manhattanite who now lives on a farm upstate and writes about the rural life.
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